With only a couple of games left in the MLS season, the playoff picture is relatively clear. And a large part of that clarity is just how fucked up and unfair the MLS playoff format truly is.
The continued weakness of the Eastern Conference will lead to six of the eight playoff teams coming from the Western Conference (last season, it was five of eight). In fact, if the tables were combined (as they ought to be by any measure), the first place team in the east, New York Red Bulls, would currently occupy the fourth position, behind LA, Salt Lake City and Dallas. Yet, the playoff format will have the top western teams that are arguably the best teams in the league as a whole eliminating each other in the west.
This is quite a harsh penalty for the teams with the best regular season records, LA and Salt Lake City, and even for the surging FC Dallas. As it stands right now, LA will play Seattle while the two teams with the best current form, Dallas and Salt Lake, will face off. On the other side of the bracket, New York will fly across the country to play a weak San Jose, while sagging Columbus will make a somewhat shorter trip to Colorado.
The pundits seem to be favoring FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls to go the distance, with 2009 champions Real Salt Lake as the clear number three. I've watched a fair number of MLS matches this season, and in my opinion these so-called "power rankings" are complete bullshit.
Whether the experts' darlings FC Dallas have the chops to take out Real Salt Lake in the first round and make a deep playoff run should get a hard test in the last three matches of the regular season, as Dallas must overcome playoff-bound Colorado at home this weekend, and then away matches at RSL and LA Galaxy. We'll also get a look at New York Red Bulls at home against RSL in the last match of their season, although with the playoffs looming, it's unlikely we'll see a full complement from either side.
Lost in the shuffle are last years runners-up and current points leader LA Galaxy. Most pundits currently rank them fifth (!) behind Seattle, RSL, New York and Dallas. With Beckham inching back to fitness, the Galaxy have won four of their last five matches. Bruce Arena is playing Beckham together with Juninho in the central midfield, with Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle up front. Sure, the defending has looked a bit shaky at times, but when goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts is on form and their attack is flowing, they are going to be a force, and they have the experience of having made a run to the final last year. And, with the best record in the MLS going into the playoffs (at least as of this writing), they'll get home field advantage through to the final in Toronto.
That said, it's unlikely that the best team will win the MLS Cup, and even more unlikely that the best two teams will meet in the final. And that's a problem for the league. There's a home & home aggregate goal series in the first round, so some likelihood that quality will bubble to the top -- but against that is the ludicrous seeding process, that rewards the better Eastern Conference teams with weaker opponents out of the west. After that it's one-and-done in the conference finals and the MLS Cup final, so a hot team can put four decent matches together and win the cup even from a "wild card" position, as Real Salt Lake did last season (fifth in the west; re-seeded in the east as the wildcard; upset LA Galaxy in final on penalties).
But I'll watch anyway. I'm pulling for an LA/New York final.